sealPurdue News

August 1998

Business schools focus on strengths, tailor MBAs

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Business schools across the country are setting themselves apart by offering "niche" master's degrees.

"It's definitely a response to increased market demand and business school competition," says Chuck Johnson, director of professional master's programs at Purdue University's Krannert School of Management. In the past, many business schools could offer general business degrees and rely primarily on geography to attract students. But now, he says, most business schools can no longer compete with only a general management program. Name recognition and expertise in specialized business fields is hotter than ever.

"As a business school, you have to identify and cultivate areas of expertise for which people will seek you out," Johnson says. "The whole trend of niche business degrees, such as Purdue's new Agribusiness MBA or the University of South Carolina's International Business MBA, is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Business schools have offered short courses and nondegree programs for corporations all over the United States, and many MBA programs have offered concentrations related to specific industries for some time. But the model is changing and now we're seeing that corporations are supporting longer-term hybrid executive master's programs that can deliver graduates with a deeper knowledge in a particular discipline along with a solid foundation in management."

Charles Hickman, director of projects and services for the International Association for Management Education, agrees.

"Niche, or specialty, degrees are becoming a popular way for business schools to identify themselves," he says. "Basically, schools are wising up and are no longer trying to out-Harvard Harvard. Now they have begun to build on their own institutional strengths to carve a niche for themselves, or sometimes create a new one. As a result, we are seeing master's degrees offered in specialized areas such as electronic commerce, health administration, sports management and even country music management."

According to an analysis of Barron's Guide to Graduate Business Schools, conducted by Patricia Flynn, dean of the Bentley College Graduate School of Business, and published in the November 1997 edition of the MBA Newsletter, 685 specialized business master's degree programs were offered in the United States in 1996. According to Flynn, accounting represented the largest share of the programs -- with 189 programs -- followed by management. The article states that 29 U.S. institutions offer five or more specialized master's degree programs in business. California State University offers the most specialty MBAs with 14 different programs to choose from.

At Purdue, specialty business programs created in the past 18 months include a specialization in computational finance, a three-week management training course for scientists and engineers at the doctoral level called Applied Management Principles, a master's degree in accounting, and an Executive Master of Business Administration in Agribusiness degree.

The agribusiness degree, with classes beginning in August 1999, is believed to be the first distance-delivered executive MBA in agribusiness offered in the United States. The degree, a cooperative venture between the Purdue Schools of Management and Agriculture, is aimed at further developing the management skills of professionals already working in the food and agricultural industries.

"This degree will allow agribusiness managers, commercial farmers and growers, and food manufacturing professionals to expand their knowledge of economic, social, technological and geopolitical forces that shape corporate and global decision-making in the food business," says Dennis J. Weidenaar, dean of the Krannert Graduate School of Management. "It's just one example of how universities are tailoring business programs to meet the needs of the marketplace."

Other innovative features of the two-year agribusiness program include the use of interactive coursework delivered via the World Wide Web, allowing managers to pursue a degree with minimal disruption from the workplace; a set of on-campus residencies that allows one-on-one time with instructors and other students; and an international residency in the Netherlands.

The downside of "niche" degrees, says Purdue's Johnson, is that schools could begin to lose focus on their core business and management courses and over-fragment themselves.

"If used wisely and strategically, specialty MBAs can serve a school and its students well," he says. "If used poorly they could lead to the balkanization of the business school environment. At Purdue we've been extremely careful in choosing those programs that make sense and that we know we can build upon, such as the agribusiness MBA."

Wallace E. Tyner, head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue, says the new degree was the logical next step for the School of Agriculture.

"We've been serving the global agribusiness community with educational programs and workshop opportunities for many years," he says. "The agribusiness MBA is our response to feedback from our colleagues that told us they wanted a pragmatic, in-depth course of study that could be accomplished from their current place of work. That's what we're trying to deliver."

As for the future, Johnson says he anticipates that specialty master's degrees will continue to grow in number and that courses such as human resource management and marketing may show up alongside traditional anatomy or litigation courses in the nation's medical and law schools.

"None of us practices our profession in a vacuum," he says. "For instance, more and more the business side of medicine is influencing how a medical student chooses to practice, and an attorney certainly needs to know how to manage his staff, market his services, and communicate with his accountant."

Sources: Chuck Johnson, (765) 496-3668; e-mail,

Dennis J. Weidenaar, (765) 494-4366; e-mail,

Charles Hickman, (314) 872-8507; e-mail,

Wallace E. Tyner (765) 494-4194; e-mail,

Writer: Kate Walker, (765) 494-2073; e-mail,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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